Arms deal commission: War games and poems

Winston Churchill once said that war is a game that is played with a smile. "If you can't smile, grin. If you can't grin, keep out of the way until you can."

War games have indeed been displayed with a smile at the arms deal commission this week in a series of anecdotes that, on one occasion, brought the austere commission chair, Judge Willie Seriti, close to open laughter. And those who feel less jovial about the 1999 arms deal, its harshest critics, are staying out of the way until they are called to rebut the evidence.

From navy officers playing "war games" to ministers moved to poetry by weapons, the evidence presented thus far at the commission illustrates a navy bubbling over with enthusiasm about the frigates and submarines it purchased during the arms deal.

Wednesday's proceedings ended with a tale about the frigates purchased during the arms deal, told by the navy's Rear Admiral Robert Higgs.

Shortly after the frigates arrived on South African shores, in 2007, they were taken to the Eastern Cape, where former Eastern Cape premier, Nosimo Balindlela, was given an official viewing.

And when she saw one of these, the SAS Mendi, she declared that it represented "the new, transformed South Africa". So moved was she by the 120m-long ship that she read from a poem titled Mendi – an ode to the South Africans who died when the frigate's namesake sank.

SAS Mendi
The SAS Mendi was named after the SS Mendi which sank off the coast of Britain in 1917 in what is regarded as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African navy.

Higgs was asked to explain why all four frigates and three submarines purchased by South Africa during the arms deal were needed by the navy.

"Yes, there was all this controversy around the frigates," Higgs said, acknowledging the allegations of bribery that form the main thrust around why the arms deal commission was established in 2011.

But Balindlela's endorsement of the SAS, when she was a member of the ANC in the midst of the controversy around how it was purchased, was "quite beautiful", Higgs said.

Former defence minister Mosioua Lekota was also present at the presentation of the SAS Mendi in 2007. He reportedly said it was a "symbol of sacrifice, brotherhood and hope".

Balindlela joined the Democratic Alliance in 2012, following a brief stint as a representative of Congress of the People in Parliament.

Higgs told the commission on Wednesday: "I am really proud of what we've got – our frigates and submarines."

Defence Review
Higgs was part of the team that wrote the 1998 Defence Review, which formed part of how the newly-formed South African National Defence Force would operate under the fresh constitutional democracy.

Higgs is testifying at the arms deal commission mainly to explain the rationale behind the navy's acquisition of the boats. And according to Higgs, the frigates and submarines are the "workhorses" of any navy and the South African navy needed them for years.

The last frigates and submarines that the navy owned were purchased in the 1970s, he said, and were in a dire condition by time the apartheid ended. They could not be replaced during apartheid because of the arms embargo placed on South Africa, he added.

He said the boats were vital to the navy fulfilling its constitutional mandate, which is "primarily to protect and defend the republic". The boats are deterrents to would-be invaders, he said.

"South Africa is a maritime nation … Sometimes people need to be reminded of the Anglo-Boer War. The British troops came to South Africa by boat because the British controlled the seas."

He said South Africa's history was awash with examples of how the breach of a country's shores by an invading foreign country could alter its course.

Higgs accused the "pacifists" – anti-arms deal campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne, specifically – of misunderstanding why the navy needed weapons in a democratic South Africa. He said that, during the discussions around the Defence Review, Crawford-Browne had said "democracies don't invade democracies". It was Thabo Mbeki, "with his brilliance", who swiftly corrected Crawford-Browne, Higgs said.

But Crawford-Browne was not the only critic of the navy's view in the mid-1990s. At one point, the list of critics even included ANC's Tony Yengeni.

Yengeni would later be implicated in the fraud and corruption allegations around the arms deal – he was convicted for fraud in 2003 in relation to a discount he accepted on a luxury vehicle from an arms deal-related company.

More recently, the Mail & Guardian revealed that Yengeni allegedly signed a R6-million bribe agreement with ThyssenKrupp, the German company that led the consortium that sold the four frigates to South Africa.

Yengeni did not specifically confirm or deny the claim at the time, although he denied being guilty of fraud related to the vehicle discount. But in 1995, Yengeni was one of those who felt that the absence of a threat to South Africa was not reason enough for arming the navy with warships. 

He is quoted in Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren's The Devil in the Detail – How the Arms Deal Changed Everything, as having said at the time: "There is no doubt that the most pressing security problems are right here at home, within South Africa. They are crime, political violence, poverty, illiteracy, disease, homelessness etc. We need to move beyond bland assertions about vague threats."

'If we can't patrol, we can't control'
But Higgs, like Rear Admiral Green, who testified at the commission on Tuesday, felt that the best way to combat potential threats was to be prepared for any eventuality.

Additionally, Higgs told the commission South Africa had to patrol a large marine territory, which was an asset that should be protected. "If we can't patrol, we can't control," he said.

A 2008 report argued that the purchase of the frigates and submarines had "crippled" the navy and reiterated a long-held view that purchasing simple patrol boats would have served the navy better. Higgs is yet to be cross-examined, so it is not known if lawyers at the commission will put any of these claims to him.

Instead, on Wednesday, he was asked to tell the commission about how the navy decided it needed warships. 

"War games", was Higgs's answer.

The armed forces sat together and worked through several hypothetical war situations that could arise if South Africa was not armed, he said. "We call this war-gaming. Navies all over the world do it."

For example, the then newly-formed South African National Defence Force would consider the possibility of South Africa being invaded by a foreign country. "They've taken Pretoria, and we decide to roll them back by guerrilla warfare, and so on," he said.

Another scenario was one in which the Anglo-Boer War occurred in modern-day South Africa.

With these scenarios in mind, the navy had at its disposal an "award-winning" computer program with which to work out which arms packages it could potentially purchase.

The navy fed the "war game" scenarios into the program, and it spat out various weapons options that could minimise the hypothetical threat. These were then converted into four options, Higgs said.

The option eventually chosen by Cabinet – the arms deal – was also signed off by Parliament, Higgs said. "In that way, the people of South Africa had spoken."

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 


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